Vilsack Sails Through Confirmation Hearing

Published on: 09:36AM Jan 15, 2009
By Jim Wiesemeyer

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

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Quick confirmation expected.

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Vilsack sails through confirmation hearing. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), as expected, encountered no problems in his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Ag Committee.

Quick Senate confirmation likely: Senate Ag panel members assured Vilsack that he would likely be confirmed as soon as next Tuesday, Jan. 20. If so, he could take office the same day as President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated.

Key issues to be addressed: Vilsack said he would push the Obama administration's priority issues, which he said included climate change, nutrition and sustainability. He added that he would push for consumption of more nutritious, locally grown food, and would help develop new biofuels made from crop residue and crops such as switchgrass. "Moving toward next-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, is going to be really important in order to respond" to concerns about the impact on food prices of using grain for fuel, he said. Vilsack added, “It's important for us to realize (biofuels) is not just corn, and not just the Midwest, that can benefit.”

Corn-based ethanol: Falling prices and softening demand for ethanol means continued tough times for the ethanol industry, Vilsack said. "The margins are very, very small, and frankly you are going to have to be a very efficient manger over the next few years to do well," Vilsack said. Referring to corn-based ethanol, Vilsack said, “This is an industry that is in some difficulty. Margins are quite small, even for the best producers.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) pushed a policy initiative that would increase the maximum ethanol blend above 10 percent. Thune wanted to know if Vilsack would work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy on higher blend levels. Vilsack did not specifically answer Thune's blend question. Instead, he said that meeting the increasing Renewable Fuels Standard will be a challenge unless more efforts are put into biofuels research and development, Vilsack said. "I think USDA has a very, very important role to play in making sure we provide the research and the focus and direction to meet whatever the requirements are," Vilsack said adding that he has already spoken to Lisa P. Jackson, the EPA nominee, about her role in boosting biofuels production and agriculture.

"I look forward to doing what is right in terms of second- or third-generation biofuels," Vilsack said.

Food and nutrition: Vilsack revealed that he has informed Tom Daschle, Obama's Health and Human Services (HHS) nominee, that children should be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, and added that USDA needs to ensure there are adequate supplies of good-quality produce for schools. Vilsack said USDA's child nutrition program, which spends around $15 billion annually, could be a tool for ending childhood hunger by 2015 – a goal set by Obama. "We can work with our schools to make sure fruits and vegetables are available," Vilsack said. "We will be very aggressive in this area." Vilsack added, “It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets. . . . That means supporting those who supply those products” and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products.”

Senate Ag Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) during the hearing said he will propose that USDA use Institute of Medicine guidelines to set standards for “junk food” sold in schools. Current USDA school food standards exempt most snack foods, because they are not a part of subsidized lunches. Vilsack has previously backed limits on the kinds of snacks and beverages students can buy outside the lunch line.

Regarding food safety, Vilsack said the current system must be modernized to focus on prevention and mitigation. He said he would work for “more nutritious food produced in a sustainable way.”

Pledges to be Ag Secretary for all states and regions: Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), ranking member of the Ag Committee, said that Iowa and the crops it grows would be "well-represented in both branches of government” -- referring to Obama at the White House and Sen. Tom Harkin as Senate Ag Committee chairman. Vilsack responded that he would represent the interests of agriculture "in all parts of the country."

Farm program payment limitations: Several farm-state lawmakers urged Vilsack to close what they said were “loopholes” in current pay cap regulations. “Payment limits are going to be a the top of my agricultural agenda,” Vilsack stressed. Obama supported a $250,000 per year “hard” cap. Sens. Chambliss and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) cautioned Vilsack against writing unfair regulations and signaled that Congress could override anything deemed unfair, much like Congress overrode USDA on the so-called 10-acre rule.

Vilsack admitted he has a lot to learn about the complex commodity payment provisions. “I’m not going to tell you today that there might not be a disagreement from time to time, but if there is I will be available to talk,” he said. “I honestly don’t know as much as I need to know or as much as you know about this issue,” he Chambliss, when asked about the topic.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told Vilsack not to lose sight of the American farmers who produce food and fiber the U.S. and the world rely on. “There’s been a lot of criticism of agriculture recently. . . . There are some that want to change the mission of USDA [by making it] the Department of Food, Nutrition, Hunger,” Roberts said. “Can you assure me that you will make commodities a top concern?” Vilsack reminded Roberts that he was once a lawyer who represented production farmers who faced dire situations during the farm crisis of the 1980s.

“Agriculture is a very complicated business and a very sophisticated business, and that sometimes is not realized,” Vilsack said. “I do appreciate the diversity . . . of different kinds of agriculture.”

Farm bill implementation: Vilsack assured that he would consult with the Ag Committee over farm bill implementation issues and he specifically noted his pleasure to implement the Conservation Stewardship Program, and to complete rules for the permanent disaster program. “I know that it is important to members of Congress that whatever compromises were made to reflect the diversity of agriculture that are reflected in that bill be carried out," Vilsack said. "I think it's important what we do is consistent with congressional intent." Asked what changes he would recommend for the next farm bill, Vilsack said he had been instructed only to praise the current farm bill passed by Congress last year.

Economic stimulus: Vilsack said he would “leverage the financial commitment of the stimulus bill” to boost rural growth. Rural areas face historic challenges, Vilsack said in his statement, from the U.S. economic recession and historical problems of lower incomes and higher poverty rates than the rest of the country.

Dairy: While not proposing any new program, Vilsack sounded open to the notion of providing additional assistance to troubled dairy farmers. "There have been some very tragic circumstances in California, where dairy farmers have been so distressed that they have taken their own lives," Vilsack noted. "We need to . . . provide a glide path to stability in the industry."

Trade agreements: Vilsack pledged he would help ensure that any new international trade agreement is "a net plus for all of agriculture."

Other other issues, Vilsack said he supported a “robust farm safety net,” and that it was time to resolve civil rights complaints against USDA, modernize the Ag Department's computer system, look for other ways to increase farmers’ incomes, in areas like wind power and organic farming, and to expand opportunities for farmers, ranchers and rural communities “to promote renewable energy technologies like biofuels, wind, solar and geothermal, and to deliver environmental benefits like clean air, clean water, and fish and wildlife habitat.” Vilsack said he hopes to improve the agency’s programs by first making enhancements to its technology, which has not been fully updated since the 1980s.

Vilsack signaled that he would seek new spending to pay for the upgrades. “We need to provide Congress with a workable and realistic plan to implement the technology changes necessary to bring the department into the 21st century,” he said.

Comments: Anyone watching the confirmation hearing would conclude that Vilsack gave an impressive performance. The hearing lasted just over two hours and signaled Vilsack will have no problems getting confirmed.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.